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“Jail?” Dixie’s green eyes widened with delight. “You were in jail, Susan?”
“Yup,” Sal said. “In Nowhere, Nevada. It’s a bonding experience.” The big woman scratched the armpit of her pink parka. “Jail, I mean. Not Nowhere.”
Bonding? My cheeks burned. Jail had been one of the worst moments of my life. The lack of control. The smell of disinfectant. That sheriff had even taken by planner away. Plus, it was jail.
“But she wasn’t in for long.” Sal leaned against the reception desk and crossed her legs. She wore matching pink ankle boots. “Susan had to get out to catch that killer.”
“Were you a... deputy?” Arsen asked her, frowning.
“What?” Sal reared backward against the desk. “Deputy? No way. Susan, you didn’t tell him about me?”
“No, no,” I said. “I mean, I did. It’s just—I never knew your full name. We never introduced ourselves properly. You remember.” I turned to Arsen. “The woman with the, er, chalk?” With it, she’d created an impromptu murder board on the jailhouse wall. It had actually been rather helpful.
Grinning, she socked me in the shoulder, and I winced. “I was instrumental in helping solve that murder.”
“You were?” Dixie asked.
“Sure,” Sal said. “We did that whole... thing. You know. Deducting whodunit. Using the gray cells. Like she said, I supplied the chalk and the organizational skills.” She tapped her head.
Bailey sighed and slumped against her foot. She bent to pat the beagle’s head.
“What were you in for?” Dixie asked.
“Dixie,” I hissed, rubbing my shoulder. “That’s a little rude.” But my stomach lurched. What had Sal been arrested for? I didn’t recall discussing it in jail, but I’d had a lot on my mind at the time.
“Nah, it’s okay.” Sal unzipped her thick parka. “I was in for assault.”
My stomach plunged to the fake Persian carpet. “Assault? You attacked someone?”
“Not someone.” She scowled. “I decked a guy. He was hassling my ex—an excitable, tense kind of guy. Reminds me a little of you, Susan.”
“The guy you hit reminds you of Susan?” Arsen asked.
“No, no, no,” she said. “He was a big guy, about your size. My ex reminds me of Susan.”
“So he was hassling your ex, and you punched him,” Dixie said gleefully.
“We-ell,” she said. “I told him to knock it off. And then he called me fat, and the red haze came.”
“The red haze?” I asked in a distant voice.
“It’s like this wash,” Sal said. “This red haze comes over my eyes. I can’t be blamed for what happens next.”
“Cool,” Dixie said. “What happened to your ex?”
She scowled. “He’s my ex, isn’t he? How should I know?”
“What does he do?” Dixie asked.
“It’s not important,” I said quickly. “He’s her ex. No one wants to talk about their ex.”
Sal shrugged. “It’s no biggie. He’s a money man.”
“For... the mob?” I whispered, horrified.
“Nah, for Tesla. He’s an accountant. It’s good pay.”
“Your timing is amazing,” Dixie said. “Susan found another dead body just today. A murdered woman.”
Sal’s chin jerked backward. “You’re kidding. We’ve got another case? Good thing I brought my chalk.”
“Sal’s in room seven, right?” Dixie picked up Sal’s suitcase and grunted. “You’re going to love it. A guy was killed in there a couple of years back. It was the sheriff’s ex-husband.”
We didn’t usually mention that detail to our guests. “That’s—”
“No kidding.” Sal braced her hands on her broad hips. “Think it’s haunted?”
“Oh,” my cousin said. “Totally.” She staggered toward the green-carpeted stairs. “And did Susan tell you about Bigfoot?”
“Nuh-uh.” She followed Dixie up the stairs. “We were pretty concentrated on our murder case back then.” On the first step, Sal pivoted. She pointed a finger at the shelf beside the reception desk with its rows of souvenirs. “I want to get one of those alien bobbleheads before I leave though. Be sure to save one for me.”
“Of course,” I said distantly. We watched the two women disappear up the steps.
“I don’t know about this new guest.” Arsen rubbed his chin, his five o’clock shadow making scratching noises against his palm. “She looks a little rough.”
“I can’t turn her away. She has a reservation.”
“If she’s going to make you or your guests unsafe, yes,” he said, “you can.”
“I don’t think she will.” With the toe of my shoe, I flipped down a corner of the rug that had turned up. “I mean, she was nice in that jail. And she’s out now. How is she going to be rehabilitated if she’s not allowed to rent a room in a B&B?”
“Why’d she come here? And how’d she know how to find you if you didn’t introduce yourselves?”
“She must have heard we cracked that murder in Nowhere after the sheriff let me go. And when the deputy came to release me, she might have said my last name out loud. Witsend. Wits’ End. It wouldn’t have been hard to put those two together.”
Arsen raised a skeptical brow. “You’re a soft touch.” He smiled. “It’s one of the things I love about you. But you need to be careful.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.” I laughed unevenly. “She was dating an accountant, not a member of a motorcycle gang. And it’s not as if she’s come to Doyle to pull off a caper.”
Unless… Nah. She’d been arrested for assault, not grand theft. Not that assault was a good thing. In fact, it was pretty bad. Really bad. Maybe I should gently direct Sal away from the other guests?
Steps thundered on the stairs, and Dixie and Sal returned to the foyer. Sal was still bundled in her thick parka.
“No one’s ever put rose petals on my bed before. Thanks, Sue. I mean, it’s a little weird since we’re just friends, but okay. I get it. You do you.” Sal rubbed her hands together. “Now, what’s the first step?”
I plucked a map from the brochure stand beside the door. “We’ve got hiking trails, and downtown Doyle is charming. Most of the sights are on Main Street, but it’s still worth a look. There are tasting rooms and even a cute old jail—” I clamped my mouth shut.
Oh. Maybe not the old jail.
“I meant next with the investigation,” Sal said, seemingly unperturbed by the jail reference.
“Usually,” Dixie said, “Susan takes a casserole to the bereaved. Then she grills them for intel.”
Sal’s round face scrunched in consternation. “We have to bake a casserole?”
“Not a chance,” Dixie said. “This is a B&B. Susan’s got half a dozen breakfast casseroles in the freezer. She always makes extra. She drops one off a week to these nice old guys she found some stolen gnomes for. And you know, other casserole-related stuff comes up.”
Sal nodded, her red curls bouncing. “Got it. The old here’s a casserole, now spill your guts ploy. I find alcohol more effective, but this is your show.”
“It might be a little too soon for casseroles,” Arsen said.
“He’s right,” I said quickly. “The sheriff probably hasn’t had a chance to inform Kelsey’s sister about the murder. We need to wait until tomorrow, so we don’t step on the sheriff’s investigation.” Or wait until never. After all, I could hardly assist the sheriff with Sal in tow.
Sal’s lip curled. “Cops.”
“In the meantime,” I said, “have you eaten? Doyle has a fun collection of restaurants.” Far away from Wits’ End and my other guests.
“It’s a little early to eat,” Sal said. “But thanks.”
Sweat dampened my forehead. I needed to get her out of here before she encountered the Bigfoot group. “Or there’s—”
The front door opened. Rosy-cheeked, Carl and Clara Carter trooped into the foyer. “Tracks,” Carl said, grinning. “We found possible Bigfoot tracks. Where are the others? Are they back yet?”
“Ah, no.” I cast a quick glance at Sal. I doubted Sal would mind if I didn’t introduce them. “I thought your group was sticking together?”
“We decided to break into pairs to expand the search field,” the older man said. “And who’s this? Another seeker?”
Oh, damn. “We were just leaving,” I said repressively.
“I’m Sal.” She stuck a plump hand out, and they shook. “You found Bigfoot tracks?” she asked.
“I think so. Look at these photos.” He pulled his phone from the pocket of his parka, fiddled with the screen, and handed it to her.
She whistled. “You put the quarter next to it for scale?”
He nodded. “Exactly. You’re familiar with the technique?”
“I know a thing or two,” she said modestly. “I was instrumental in helping solve a murder once.”
“Really?” Mrs. Carter asked, her voice burbling with excitement. “Would you like to see the tracks? I’d love to hear about your murder.”
“Sure. It looks like I’ve got time to kill.” Sal cracked her knuckles. “Lead on, Macduff.”
The trio strolled from the B&B. I watched the front door swing shut. So much for keeping Sal away from the Bigfoot seekers. “This will be fine,” I said uneasily. Just fine.
The next morning, Dixie leaned against my butcher-block kitchen counter and sipped coffee. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said. “The guy called her fat. What was Sal supposed to do?”
“Exercise some self-restraint.” I set a dish in the washer. “And have you seen my cast-iron pans?” How could they have vanished from the cupboard? They weren’t the sort of things I typically misplaced. I’d had to use a pair of ancient metal pans this morning. I didn’t like those pans.
“Some people exercise too much self-restraint,” my cousin muttered into her mug.
My eyes narrowed. “What was that?”
“No, I haven’t seen your pans.”
I slung the drying towel over my shoulder. “Well, they didn’t walk out of the kitchen on their own.”
“I didn’t take your stupid pans. And why didn’t you tell me you’d been in jail?”
“I wasn’t accusing you, and it was all a misunderstanding,” I said in a rush. “I wasn’t charged with anything.” Also, it was humiliating. I checked the drawer beneath the oven. No cast-iron pans. Where the heck had I put them?
“Oh, well. You never lorded my arrest over me. I guess I can cut you some slack.”
“Thank you.” I banged the drawer shut and straightened. “But since the charges were dropped, an arrest basically never happened.”
“Yeah, no. I don’t think it works that way.”
Was I losing my mind? Had I put them away in the wrong place? I opened a random cupboard. No cast iron. “Did you get a chance to call Hannah and Anselm?”
I wiped my hands on the dish towel and hung it on the stove door handle to dry. “And?”
Dixie was being more helpful than I’d expected with my investigation. But you should never underestimate people. We’ve all got hidden depths. Besides, these were Dixie’s friends. Of course she wanted to help them. “Can we see them today?” I asked.
“Yeah, I said we’d be stopping by this morning. They’re not going anywhere.”
Sal burst into the kitchen, and I tensed. The kitchen was off limits to guests for good reasons involving hot stoves, damp floors, and other household hazards. Also, it was my private kitchen.
“Super breakfast, Sue. You don’t mind if I call you Sue, do you? Great. Are we ready to go?” She wore red boots with fur at the top. A raspberry sweater covered her thick black leggings at her thighs.
“Go?” I asked blankly.
“To talk to the murdered woman’s sister. You said ten o’clock, right Dix?”
“Yup.” Dixie nodded like one of the bobbleheads on the shelf behind the reception desk.
I clenched my fists. Dixie. Why was she encouraging this?
“Cool,” Sal said. “I’ve got to do something before I go crazy. This place is quiet. Like, Night of the Comet quiet. Like humanity has been turned to dust after going through the path of a comet’s tail, and we’re the only survivors quiet. I’m going to get my jacket. Oh, and I’ll bring you back your pans.” She pivoted and strode into the foyer, the kitchen door swinging behind her.
“You told Sal?” I asked, outraged. Wait. Pans?
My cousin shrugged and blew on her coffee. “She asked. What was I supposed to do?”
I exhaled slowly. Dixie was right. I wouldn’t lie to my guests, and I couldn’t ask Dixie to either. Though a little bit of misdirection wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I finished cleaning up and double checked my planner to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Naturally, I hadn’t.
Sal strode into the kitchen brandishing my cast-iron pans. “Thanks for these.”
“I didn’t—What did you need my pans for?”
“I forgot to bring my free weights.” She handed me the two pans.
That was… I shook my head. Never mind.
I returned the pans to their proper place. We piled into my Crosstrek. Dixie climbed into the back with Bailey and the casseroles.
“So tell us about Hannah,” I said with forced cheerfulness. I backed the car from the drive.
“She couldn’t stand her sister,” my cousin said. Bailey woofed.
“Sisters,” Sal said wisely. “It can be the best or worst relationship of your life.”
I pulled into the court. “Why did she hate her?” I was a single child, so I didn’t get sibling dynamics. But in my experience, most families at least tried to get along.
“Because Kelsey stole Hannah’s boyfriend, Anselm,” Dixie said.
“In my experience,” Sal said. “Most stolen boyfriends want stealing. My ex—” She stopped herself and sighed.
“Maybe,” my cousin said from the back. “But I think it bugged Hannah because Kelsey already had two other guys.”
“Two others?” Sal asked.
I had enough on my hands managing one. I frowned. Arsen hadn’t dropped in for breakfast this morning like he usually did. He must have been really busy.
“Three boyfriends does seem greedy,” Sal said.
We drove down Main Street, and I pointed out the sights in Doyle to our guest. Finally, we turned up a small hill to a newish luxury condominium complex. Its manicured lawns were dotted with snow. With its stone walls and peaked rooflines it looked more appropriate for Aspen or Vail than funny little Doyle. But California was changing—even in the foothills.
Sal whistled. “This Hannah got money?”
“Sort of,” Dixie said. “It’s in her family. It kind of comes and goes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“Her parents cut Hannah off when she started seeing Anselm. And then when they broke up, she got back into her parents’ good graces.”
“And the money came back?” I asked. “What happened to Kelsey when she started dating Anselm?”
“Nothing. Kelsey had already told her parents to pound sand. She’s been on her own for years. She said she didn’t need their money.”
“I’m liking this girl,” Sal said. “Too bad she’s dead.”
We parked in the lot. I took the casserole, and Sal and I followed Dixie along a paving stone path to the glass front doors. They opened automatically, and we walked into the foyer. A curving security desk stood in front of one stone wall. Bailey looked around, interested.
Bernie, the complex’s uniformed guard and our sometimes handyman, looked up and grinned. “Hey, Susan, Dixie, Bailey. What’s up?”
“Hi, Bernie,” I said. “We’re here to see Hannah Delaney.”
He smiled at Sal. “I’ll call up.” He phoned. “Susan and Dixie and a friend of theirs are here to see you... Okay.” He hung up. “You can take the elevator up.”
I nodded. “Thanks.” We got into the elevator and the doors closed. “Anything else you’d like to mention about Hannah and Anselm?”
“Nope,” Dixie said.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened. We walked into a hallway with gleaming wood floors. Modern—and possibly original—art hung on the sand-colored walls. We approached Hannah’s door and heard raised voices inside.
“—too late,” a woman shouted. “Just get out.”
The door flew open. A tall, auburn-haired man in a fleece-lined denim jacket and khaki slacks backed from it. A near-black, geometric tattoo curled across the back of his neck. “Hannah, I’m so sorry. This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Get out,” she shrieked and slammed the door.
Heat crept from my chest to my neck. Awkward.
The man turned, his brown eyes mournful. He had the bad boy looks of a Hollywood star. What was going on? I’d never noticed so many attractive men in Doyle before.
“Hey, Anselm,” Dixie said brightly. “How’s it going?”
Anselm? One of Kelsey’s boyfriends? Even more awkward. And intriguing.
Night of the Cupid launches October 31st! You can still get the pre-order discount and buy the ebook at only $3.99 if you order now!